Air Force Could Lose 12,000 Vaccine Refusniks

While 96 percent of airmen are in compliance, the service is about to get smaller.

An Air Force staff sergeant gives a coronavirus vaccine at Otis Air National Guard Base. (United States Air Force)

WaPo’s Alex Horton reports (“Air Force is first to face troops’ rejection of vaccine mandate as thousands avoid shots“):

Up to 12,000 Air Force personnel have rejected orders to get fully vaccinated against the coronavirus despite a Pentagon mandate, and officials say it is too late for them to do so by the Tuesday deadline, posing the first major test for military leaders whose August directive has been met with defiance among a segment of the force.

The vast majority of active-duty airmen, more than 96 percent, are at least partially vaccinated, according to data from the Air Force. But officials have warned that, barring an approved medical or religious exemption, those who defy lawful orders to be fully immunized are subject to punishment, including possible dismissal from the service, or they could be charged in the military justice system.

The challenge now confronting Air Force leaders — how to address potential large-scale dissent in the face of a top health priority that has been deeply politicized — is a bellwether for the dilemma in store across the military’s other services, which have staggered compliance deadlines ranging from the end of November to the middle of next summer and, in some cases, have experienced far greater resistance to President Biden’s mandate.

A wave of dismissals could jolt the Air Force personnel system and cause significant challenges within units that must be ready to respond to crises at a moment’s notice, especially if some vital jobs — like pilots or aircraft maintainers — are overrepresented among those who could face expulsion, said Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security. “The fact that it’s a choice leading to potential loss to readiness is striking,” she said.

It is bizarre to me not only that 12,000 airmen are refusing to follow the legal orders of their commander-in-chief but that there isn’t a uniform policy on following said orders across the Defense Department. Regardless, those refusing to comply must be discharged with prejudice; they can not be allowed an honorable discharge under these circumstances. Given that other services have much later deadlines, however, I would be inclined to grant a waiver to those who have already received their first dose of one of the two-shot vaccines long enough for them to complete the sequence and come into compliance.

As to exemptions, they’re unlikely to be granted:

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said this week that, generally, the number of religious exemptions for any vaccine is “very, very small.” The Army, which is the largest military service, has granted just one permanent medical exemption and no religious exemptions for the coronavirus vaccine, officials said. The Navy hasn’t granted any religious exemptions for any vaccine — for the coronavirus or otherwise — in the past seven years.

The religious objections have centered on the fetal cell lines used in some aspects of vaccine development, essentially reproductions of cells from abortions performed in the 1970s and 1980s. The shots themselves don’t contain the actual cells. A regimen of numerous vaccines is required upon joining the military and even more if troops are deployed overseas. Some of the required vaccines, including those against Rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A, also were developed using similar cells.

[…]

Airmen receive counseling from leaders and medical providers when filing a medical exemption. For a religious exemption request, service members must meet with a chaplain to determine if their request was generated by a “sincerely held belief,” Stefanek said.

Information about their request is forwarded to a senior commander for consideration, Stefanek said, typically a three-star or four-star general who must weigh an individual’s request against a unit’s mission requirements.

Even if the commander believes an airman has made a sincere request, it may be denied if it is believed the unvaccinated airman could harm unit cohesion or make it too difficult to work close together, Stefanek said.

This strikes me as the right policy. No “sincerely-held belief” should trump the health of the rest of the unit.

This one is a bit curious, however:

Historically, most administrative exceptions have been made for service members close to a planned departure, she said. Airmen who secured approved retirement or separation by Nov. 1, with an exit by April 1, are not subject to the vaccine mandate, she said.

On the one hand, this seems humane. Why force people about to get out to comply? On the other, I can’t offhand think of other examples where “I’m going to be out in five months” is an excuse for violating the lawful orders of the commander-in-chief and Secretary of Defense.

UPDATE: I meant to note that, from what I’m hearing, this is creating a major administrative burden across DoD. Almost everyone is in compliance but even 3-4 percent noncompliance is a whole lot of people filing for exemptions on religious or other grounds that have to be reviewed. They’ll almost universally be rejected but it’s a major manpower burden to go through the process for such a large number.

FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Health, Military Affairs, National Security
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    G.E. under Jack Welch famously fired 10% of its workforce each year as dead-wood. That works fine for a couple of years, although they took it too far in my opinion.

    I’m not seeing a problem here.

    8
  2. KM says:

    Why force people about to get out to comply

    Because they’ll still be plague rats? The entire point was to help stop the spread of COVID and save lives, not just force compliance with a rule. It’s to protect the rest of us from their stubborn adherence to a false narrative regarding a pandemic. So what if they’re on the way out in a few weeks- that means they’re now our problem and we still need them vaxxed!

    16
  3. Scott says:

    I commented on this headline spinning in the open forum. All we hear are “defiance among a segment of the force”, “large-scale dissent” and a lot of hand-wringing.

    But just last May there was this: Hundreds of airmen opt to leave Air Force amid sky-high retention

    In December, Kelly announced that the active-duty Air Force had grown to around 334,600 people, about 900 more than the goal it wanted to hit by September 2021. More people were choosing to remain in the Air Force, across nearly all career fields, than at nearly any other time in the past 20 years, he said.

    12,000 seems like a lot but when put with 335K total, it is not.

    8
  4. Argon says:

    “Up to 12000….”
    Yeah, we’ll see what the real numbers are after the rubber hits the road.

    6
  5. Kingdaddy says:

    People so deeply marinated in right wing disinformation that they won’t take a vaccine during a pandemic might have problems following other orders. So, their leaving might not be a bad outcome.

    35
  6. Blue Galangal says:

    Didn’t I see somewhere that we shouldn’t be worrying about a disease with a 99% survival rate? Why are we worrying about a 97% compliance rate? /s

    My ex-husband was in during Desert Storm I, btw, and in preparation for being deployed he received *27* – I am not making this up – vaccinations. There was no option to opt out, either. Some of them we had never heard of, and I am willing to be every single airman deployed today has received an equally staggering number with some things they’ve never heard of either.

    Kingdaddy is right. Good riddance. If you’re willing to risk your fellow soldiers and your mission because of some tangerine in Florida, maybe the Armed Forces aren’t the right career path for you anyway.

    18
  7. gVOR08 says:

    A wave of dismissals could jolt the Air Force personnel system and cause significant challenges within units that must be ready to respond to crises at a moment’s notice, especially if some vital jobs — like pilots or aircraft maintainers — are overrepresented among those who could face expulsion, said Katherine L. Kuzminski, a military policy expert at the Washington think tank Center for a New American Security. “The fact that it’s a choice leading to potential loss to readiness is striking,” she said.

    “Could”, “if”, and “potential” carry a lot of weight in that statement. Why did WAPO solicit and print that useless comment? And would you want to fly in an airplane maintained or controlled by people who refuse to follow simple instructions?

    Numerators, 12,000 in this case, are catchy headlines. Coupled with denominators, 335,000 (thank you @Scott:), they’re boring. There are days I hate the supposedly liberal MSM. Shouldn’t the headline be “AF sees overwhelming compliance with VAX mandate”?

    What @Kingdaddy: said. As with cops quitting, the problem personnel are identifying themselves and quitting. How is this not a good thing? And my beloved Governor DeUseless wants to pay a $5,000 bonus to any of those bad cops who move to take cop jobs in FL. Like we don’t have enough bad cops already.

    11
  8. Jax says:

    @Kingdaddy: That was my thought, too….this ought to make it really easy to identify the possible extremists in the ranks, as well. The Venn diagram between vaccine refuseniks and those who may hold extremist views is probably a circle. Good riddance.

    15
  9. Mikey says:

    Regardless, those refusing to comply must be discharged with prejudice; they can not be allowed an honorable discharge under these circumstances.

    100% agreement. Get them the fuck out of my Air Force.

    14
  10. Cheryl Rofer says:

    I’ll agree with Argon that the real number will be smaller.

    If they don’t want to discharge the vaccine deniers (which I think is the proper response), they could look at what the Los Alamos National Laboratory has done – put the non-vaccinated on leave without pay. That’s not directly applicable to the military, but surely assignments could be found for them among their fellows, in poorly heated buildings with no windows.

    4
  11. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I don’t believe these numbers. We shall see what actually happens. in any case it’s only ~3.5% of total Air Force personnel.
    That said; ultimately the vaccine (and masks and distancing) is an IQ test. If you aren’t smart enough to get vaxxed, then you aren’t smart enough to serve. Or fight fires. Or police. Or teach.
    There are numerous vaccines already required of members of the military – this is a political stand by these idiots. Nothing more, and it should be treated as such.
    Let the dumb fuqs go, and replace them with smarter folk.

    5
  12. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    “AF Sees Overwhelming Compliance with Vax Mandate” isn’t going to generate a lot of clicks.

    9
  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    This strikes me as the right policy. No “sincerely-held belief” should trump the health of the rest of the unit.

    I’m not sure how it will work in the military, but in the corporate world, they seem to be giving “religious exemptions” to anyone who asks which is basically turning the mandates into a farce.

    3
  14. Kathy says:

    You know what would be fun? Get a few thousand red stickers printed with the words “THIS PRODUCT WAS TESTED ON HUMAN FETAL CELLS” and slap them on all sorts of products at the local supermarket.

    6
  15. Jax says:

    @Kathy: Ohhhh, that WOULD be fun! And target the products of companies that are still donating to the GOP members who refused to certify the election, despite saying they weren’t going to after 1/6!

    3
  16. James Joyner says:

    @Scott: @gVOR08: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: @CSK: I literally put the 96% compliance figure in the subhed that everyone has to read to click onto the story. 12,000 people is nonetheless a major administrative burden.

    @Stormy Dragon: I’ve got pretty good sources that confirm what the WaPo report states: essentially no one will be given a religious exemption in DOD but we have to go through the motions of rejecting each case.

    1
  17. CSK says:

    @Kathy: @Jax:
    Actually, it’s my understanding that the J&J vaccine contains aborted baby parts. Just ask anyone at The Conservative Tree House or The Gateway Pundit.

    I received the J&J vax. I am a very evil person.

    2
  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree with those suggesting the actual numbers will be much smaller.

    But as to those actually quitting? Excellent! We’ve found a way to get MAGAts to self-purge from the military. The ambient IQ will rise, generally a good thing.

    I wonder whether some of these fools will re-consider when their next job requires them to get vaccinated just to wear the blue vest at Wal-Mart?

    8
  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    I wonder what legal liability a corporation would have for conducting a sham vaccination program that caused innocent people to get sick or die?

    I also wonder about transmission and legal liability in other contexts. If my dentist is unvaccinated and spreads the disease to me, can I sue her? Lawyers?

    2
  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I also wonder about transmission and legal liability in other contexts. If my dentist is unvaccinated and spreads the disease to me, can I sue her? Lawyers?

    If you live in a GOP controlled state, then no, because they’ve all passed laws eliminating liability for businesses that spread COVID19

  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I wonder what legal liability a corporation would have for conducting a sham vaccination program that caused innocent people to get sick or die?

    A lot of corporations seem more worried about “religious discrimination” lawsuits and are basically giving out exemptions like Halloween candy

  22. @Cheryl Rofer: Adak Alaska might need a recruiter and Diego Garcia probably needs manpower….

    2
  23. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: Sorry, I was trying to ding WAPO’s headline, not yours.

  24. gVOR08 says:

    @David Anderson: Getting the Balloon Juice band back together? More seriously I always appreciate you guy’s comments,wherever.

    1
  25. Sirkowski says:

    All bark; no bite. The actual number will be much lower.

  26. R. Dave says:

    As with the cops who are refusing to follow vaccine mandates, I see this as an excellent opportunity to clear out the personnel who are least temperamentally suited for continued employment in jobs that involve carrying a weapon and having broad authority over the lives and safety of others. Frankly, it’s nice of them to identify themselves so clearly.

    8
  27. Kathy says:

    Does the military mandate flu shots every year for all personnel?

    It would be a good idea to include COVID vaccines, with annual boosters if these are required, in the vaccines all service members are required to take in order to enlist or remain in active duty. The trump virus will become endemic, like the various flu variants, and it will be important to keep up vaccination.

    2
  28. Gustopher says:

    On the one hand, this seems humane. Why force people about to get out to comply?

    Because they are plague rats who will decrease military readiness. It might be humane to give them the option of an honorable discharge though — and that’s likely less paperwork.

    1
  29. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:
    I wasn’t criticizing your headline, just commenting on the one gVOR08 created.

  30. JKB says:

    Vindictiveness may rule the day but it will only mean the issue continues as a future president or Congress is pushed to convert discharges.

    Future recruitment is going to be the “fun” part. I saw one of those “text” msg images, mostly likely fake, but still funny. It’s a message from an Army recruiter asking for a call to discuss opportunities. The response is “I hate this country”. The recruiter replies “If you join the Army you will get to leave this country often”.

    So pity the recruiters with current actions poisoning their normal wells of recruits. They’ll get creative for sure But, if you are unsure about the current military policies, it is best to not put yourself in a situation to have your future ruined by a less than honorable discharge from the military. Better to avoid the risk and pursue the expanding opportunities in the trades.

  31. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Is that meant to be a threat? A threat that we won’t have as many clueless fuckwits degrading our military forces in the future? You people really don’t get the difference between a bug and a feature, do you?

    2
  32. DrDaveT says:

    Regardless, those refusing to comply must be discharged with prejudice; they can not be allowed an honorable discharge under these circumstances.

    This was the point I was going to make. Mikey picked up on it up above. Don’t just kick them out; make sure that the record shows that they deserved it. I don’t want my tax dollars going to VA benefits for these clowns, either.

    1
  33. Ken_L says:

    If a few thousand people like Arizona’s appalling Wendy Rogers are discharged, the Air Force will be all the better for it, despite some temporary loss of efficiency. Americans should be seriously concerned at the number of batshit crazy Trump Republican politicians and activists who appear to have been radicalized in the military.

  34. de stijl says:

    I feel stupid and contagious
    Here we are now entertain us

    I thought that was a quite insightful lyric in 1991. In 2021 it is ghastly.

    (Crikey, that was 30 years ago. Time flies.)

    1
  35. Michael Reynolds says:

    @de stijl:
    I’m slowly listening to Dave Grohl’s memoir. I had not realized he started out as such a hardcore punk. Right down to living in filthy squats and vans, the whole cliché. He’s a cautious guy in other ways. I’m nearing the end and although there’s a lot about Kurt I don’t think Courtney Love are mentioned at any time.